by Richard Corliss
Bunch of guys at a Manhattan 'plex watching The Matrix. Carrie-Anne Moss kicks some 'droid butt, makes a streetwide leap from one building top to the next, then crash lands through a small window. "The bitch is bad," one of the guys opines. "Go, girl!" Then Laurence Fishburne shows up as Morpheus--a morphing Orpheus, a black White Rabbit, an R.-and-B. Obi-Wan Kenobe, a big bad John the Baptist, a Gandalf who grooves; every wise guide from literature, religion, movies and comix. Though he's in a dark room in the dead of night, and as if he needed to be more cool, Fishburne is wearing these teeny black shades. Another guy at the 'plex says approvingly, "Those glasses are fabulous!"
To deliver a futurismo fashion statement and a can of whup-ass in the same movie--this is smart filmmaking. Larry and Andy Wachowski, the Chicago-bred brothers who wrote and directed The Matrix, are smart in a way moviegoers love and Hollywood moguls cherish: the picture, shot in Australia for $63 million, had the year's strongest opening weekend and pulled in a robust $50.7 million in its first nine days. The film's producer, Joel Silver, says the boys have a sequel in mind, and cannily adds, "The more success the movie has, the more willing they'll be to write it down." Suddenly Larry, 33, and Andy, 31, are giving Peter and Bobby Farrelly (There's Something About Mary) competition as the hottest brother act in town.
But the Wachowskis, whose first directorial effort was the seductive femme-noir drama Bound, have deeper fish to fry. "We're interested in mythology, theology and, to a certain extent, higher-level mathematics," says Larry. "All are ways human beings try to answer bigger questions, as well as The Big Question. If you're going to do epic stories, you should concern yourself with those issues. People might not understand all the allusions in the movie, but they understand the important ideas. We wanted to make people think, engage their minds a bit."
And blow their minds a lot. The film posits that life as we know it is a computer simulation: it is, Morpheus says, "the world that has been pulled over your eyes" by some creepezoid machines that look like spidery octopi. Who can free a mankind that doesn't know it's enslaved? Morpheus believes the cybermessiah is Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer hacker. Early in the film Morpheus offers two pills to Neo. Take the blue one, you wake up and remember nothing. Take the red pill, "you stay in Wonderland. And I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
Naive viewers may think The Matrix is just a cool way to pass the time while sitting in the Phantom Menace waiting room. They should think again, breathe deep, get strapped in for a brain-popping trip. The Matrix is a careering cyberride without the headset, a virtual masterpiece. Every other movie out there is the blue pill. This one is the red.
An anthology of dystopic science fiction, The Matrix plunders Blade Runner and The Terminator: bad machines, grungy rebels and rain, rain everywhere, even indoors. It invokes the kung furiosity of prime Jackie Chan and the heroic bloodshed and long coats of John Woo movies; the Hollywood-Hong Konglomeration has never meshed so suavely as in this film's fight scenes and wire-work aerobatics. Never seen the mega-imaginative, ultraviolent Japanese cartoons known as anime (Akira, Ghost in the Shell)? Now you have--in whirling live action.
Those are just the movie references. The Wachowskis, both dropouts from good colleges (Larry from Bard, Andy from Emerson), want to weld classic lit, hallucinogenic imagery and a wild world of philosophical surmises to pop culture. The Bible meets Batman; Lewis Carroll collides with William Gibson; Greek and geek mythology bump and run. Hell, you may find string theory in The Matrix.
As the children of a businessman and a nurse, the boys created comic books, and the obsession continued into their 20s. "Jack Kirby comics interested us," says Andy. "We liked the idea of punching guys through brick walls and over-the-top action like that." But they connected as well with older, more revered sources. "The Bible seeks to answer a lot of relevant questions for man," says Larry. "In the film we refer to the story of Nebuchadnezzar; he has a dream he can't remember but keeps searching for an answer. Then there's the whole idea of a messiah. It's not just a Judeo-Christian myth; it also plays into the search for the reincarnation of the Buddha."
The search--the quest--informs Greek myths ("We have Orpheus and Morpheus in the film," says Larry) as well as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "It's a story about consciousness," says Larry, "a child's perception of an adult's world. The Matrix is about the birth and evolution of consciousness. It starts off crazy, then things start to make sense." It can also be read as a variant on Gibson's Neuromancer, the 1986 cyberpunk classic about a computer cowboy on the run. "It'd be near impossible to make a movie out of that," says Larry. "We knew the way to make it relevant was to turn what we view as the real world into a virtual reality."
And now, for extra credit: theoretical mathematics. The lads became fascinated, Larry says, "by the idea that math and theology are almost the same. They begin with a supposition you can derive a whole host of laws or rules from. And when you take all of them to the infinity point, you wind up at the same place: these unanswerable mysteries really become about personal perception. Neo's journey is affected by all these rules, all these people trying to tell him what the truth is. He doesn't accept anything until he gets to his own end point, his own rebirth."
Great, guys, but is Joe Popcorn supposed to carry a Matrix concordance in his head? "We wrote the story for ourselves and hoped others would pick up on it," says Larry. "Every studio we showed it to thought no one would understand it. We told them it would be complex and dense, but we were also going to shoot the best action scenes and coolest computer graphics ever. Even if audiences didn't get all of the references, we knew they'd at least have a good time with the visuals."
Kind of like Star Wars, eh, where the kids came for the laser show and stayed for the course in Joseph Campbell? Well, maybe not. "The Force is good, fun stuff," says Larry. "I grew up on those movies. But we were hoping to do something a little more sophisticated with The Matrix."
Comparisons aside, the brothers have shown they can make a science-fiction epic that both probes and throbs. George Lucas' May tricks are a month away, but Andy and Larry have proved that right now they're the big Wachowski.